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Point To Ponder : Pros & Cons Of Female Detectives

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  • Point To Ponder : Pros & Cons Of Female Detectives

    In the June 2017 issue of Ripperologist, Nina and I wrote a column concerning Frances Power Cobbe's October 10th response to a letter in The Times written by Sir Charles Warren concerning police protocol.

    Mrs. Cobbe suggests that the police ought to consider hiring women to augment the male constables on the force ( Met ). It is my belief that she meant the police ought to hire female detectives with the power to arrest.

    Mrs. Cobbe knew very well that women had been employed for decades as detectives in the U. K. ( America, as well ). However, these positions, professionally performed without a doubt, did not enable female detectives with the authority or power to arrest suspects. From store detectives, agents for private inquiry firms, and even government concerns ( the legendary female detective/spy Kate Warne of Pinkerton's Agency comes to mind....Warne is one of the most famous if not THE most famous detectives, irresepective of gender, that Allan Pinkerton ever employed), women made their mark in this line of work long before Mrs. Cobbe penned her response to Warren in The Times.

    My question......would hiring and enabling female detectives with the power to arrest been a good idea or practical from a police standpoint during the murders in 1888/1889 ?
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  • #2
    Hi How,

    Unfortunately I haven't got to read your column yet, so can't comment directly on Mrs. Cobbe. I think that the idea of employing female detectives might well have had some merit, but how effective would they have been in areas like Whitechapel, especially if they were without the same powers as their male counterparts?

    Further to this, perhaps we could suggest something similar. I wonder how it would have been if the police had been able to employ women who were already residents of JTR's area to basically 'spy' and report back anything they heard or saw to police for follow up? Let's say, for instance, you have an Elizabeth Stride type character, who undoubtedly would have heard various innuendo regarding the murders from people of her own social world, who then informs the police.

    I say this because I think it's basically a certainty that some people in the East End knew who the killer was, but didn't say anything, perhaps out of fear or mistrust of the police. Obviously there would then be the issue of the police being given false leads or the reliability of their 'spies', but if there was a financial incentive they may well have complied.




    • #3
      I haven't had time to read the article either, but I think that if they could have found women willing to do it, and able to do it (e.g, after receiving a thorough training in unarmed combat), then why not? Uniform would be a problem - they wouldn't have been able to chase people in those long skirts - but assuming that problem could be got round, I think they'd have been very good. When it came to observing and talking to the women of the metropolis, female officers would have been able to notice things that men would never have noticed, or understood if they did.


      • #4
        I think that the idea of employing female detectives might well have had some merit, but how effective would they have been in areas like Whitechapel, especially if they were without the same powers as their male counterparts?

        Adam...I'll post the response to Mrs. Cobbe's response to a letter Warren wrote to the Times. Its from one of The Echo's columnists named IRIS. Check out his sentiments ( with the fact that he's writing in 1888) :

        The critique of Mrs. Cobbe's position penned by 'IRIS' and printed in The Echo on 12 October 1888.

        Touch And Go Papers

        Among the countless suggestions that have been made for the present assistance or future guidance of the powers that be is one from Miss Frances Power Cobbe, who asks , "Why should such a thing as a female detective be unheard of in the land ? A clever woman of unobtrusive dress and appearance ( she need not be 5 ft. 7 in. ) would possess over masculine rivals not a few disadvantages. She would pass unsuspected where a man would be instantly noticed ; she could extract gossip from other women much more freely ; she would move through the streets and courts without waking the echoes of the pavement by a sonorous military tread ; and, lastly, she would be in a position to employ whatsoever it may be worth that gift of intuitive quickness and "mother wit" with which her sex is commonly credited."

        Miss Cobbe is usually an extraordinarily well-informed woman, but in this matter she is not ' up to date' . I am aware that the Government does not recognize the sex in connection with the police force, and that Scotland Yard does not include a contingent of plain-clothes- by the way, this sounds as if it would be a very unkind restriction- policewomen. But at the present moment there are scores of female detectives in London, either in the regular or casual employ of the Private Inquiry and Investigation Offices. It is one of the most curious fields of female labour that there is; and so, Miss Cobbe's letter in hand, I went to two of the most eminent firms, one in the City and one near Charing-cross, to hear their opinions as to the practical worth of the idea in connection with recent horrible events.

        In the first, the principal began by saying, "We do nothing in common criminal investigations, but only in the complications and refinements of transgressions against the laws. Women are often useful to us here ; if they have certain qualifications. A good female detective is the cruelest, most devilish creature under the sun, and I am paying a compliment to the sex in saying that she must drop all her beautiful womanly attributes to be any service. She must not have a spark of gentleness or pity in her nature, and be fiendishly calculating and foreseeing. I employ numbers of them in, say, divorce or money cases, and I can meet the wants of all classes by providing them with women of all ranks, from a Russian Princess or a Polish Countess down to a factory girl. I pay some of them two hundred a year, and they are always provided with unlimited money in case of emergency."

        My next informant considered that the scope in which a woman was of value as a detective was extremely limited. " She can go," he began, "into a house, a shop, or a factory, or anywhere a woman may reasonably be employed. But for outdoor watching and tracking she is of little use, for there are so many situations in which it is common and usual to see a man, but noticeable to find a woman once, remarkable twice, and alarmingly suspicious a third time. Not long ago, I received orders to observe the not-always-satisfactory movements of a lady who lived in a London suburb. It was suggested that a female should be employed, as the lady believed she was watched by men. But, in spite of my female agent's quick changes and resource, the lady soon saw reasons for suspecting espionage, when she observed how often another woman had to go to the same places in town as she had. And despite her dread of male detectives, it was they who obtained all the information needed. I do not think women would be of the slightest use in the East-end, while I cannot imagine any one of them would undertake the work. But, putting that aside, there is no reliance to be placed on women who are not respectable and self-respecting ; while I wonder how Miss Cobbe imagines a woman who was morally all that she ought to be, would behave if she was on night duty as a plain clothes detective ? A man comes along and offers her a drink- if she refuses it, why should she be out alone after dark ? There is something suspicious at once. If she accepts it, in the exercise of her calling, it places her in company that is possessed of the keenest eyes in the world, and who would certainly 'spot' her. No ; for criminal investigation of the ordinary kinds it is far less productive of suspicion to employ men, who can go into public houses, give and take quantities of drink, and act the blackguard among blackguards, as criminals usually are, if necessary, in the interests of justice. Women have been tried enough already as detectives to enable us to say that, save in investigations of domestic nature, men of small or average stature, ordinary appearance, cool head and rapidity of action, are the best at this class of work. "

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        • #5
          Indirect reply to the original question, I think it would have been a terrible idea to have female police investigators with power of arrest during the terrors of 1888-1889.

          For one thing, male officers had trouble making arrests sometimes and there were places in the East End that were unsafe for the police to go. Of course women would not have to go to the dangerous areas but what if a suspect fled into those areas?

          Society was not ready to accept female police with power of arrest. Put this change in policing in the present day. If women suddenly had the power of arrest we would be told in news articles and other media. We have seen something like this out west when Fish and Game officers got expanded powers which I believe included the powers of arrest and the ability to issue tickets. (They got some of the powers that had been only the work of state police game wardens.) The public was notified first. Imagine trying to inform the underworld in Whitechapel that female officers would suddenly have the power of arrest.

          Not all subjects go quietly. Unless a woman was extremely athletic and appropriately dressed for a tussle, I think many suspects would laugh at women and run away. Imagine the long skirts getting in the way. Few if any women worked out at the gym. If male suspects learned they could resist and escape, the new female powers would do more harm than good.

          Policewomen with full powers are used in modern times to flush out serial killers. Sometimes they are prostitute decoys but they are heavily backed up with male officers for good reason.

          I believe female detectives would have been of great help during 1888-1889 and perhaps they were used. It seems to me females would have been excellent in just asking questions and listening to stories. Surely JtR interacted with more women than the ones he killed. It is horribly frustrating that there isn't a collection of tales from the streets from that time. I have always felt there should have been a pattern of reports of a man who acted oddly. Female police could have gotten this information better than the men.
          The wickedness of the world is the dream of the plague.~~Voynich Manuscript


          • #6
            How, I can't disagree with any of those responses to Mrs. Cobbe's remarks. I think it's easy here to fall into the trap of viewing it from a modern perspective, but in 1888, women were certainly seen by the majority to be inferior to men, and there were many situations that it would not have been 'appropriate' for the fairer sex to be involved in.

            There are indeed many issues to consider, such as the practicality of the clothing, the risk of travelling into the most dangerous areas of London, the suspicion raised if they were out alone at night but not drinking, socialising or otherwise.

            That is why i'm more inclined to think that, if it was ever going to work, then it would have had to be in the capacity of a 'secret agent' type - a woman who was already known in the neighbourhood, outwardly carrying on as normal, but reporting any information she was to hear back to the relevant authorities - for a fee, of course.



            • #7
              Thanks Adam....

              I also think it would have been impractical to use women detectives for this murder case. Maybe as detectives in other areas.
              Thanks for the input, buddy.

              Anyone else ?
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              • #8

                The Star
                LONDON. WEDNESDAY, 3 OCTOBER, 1888

                The services of "noses" - that is to say, people who are hand in glove with persons of indifferent character, are frequently called into play, and they are deputed to go to the low lodging-houses and other places that are the resort of low characters, and keep their eyes and ears open for anything likely to give a clue to the individual or individuals wanted. Women often act as "noses."